“Starry”: A Musical Image of two Van Goghs

A van Gogh painting is energy, color, movement — thousands of brush-strokes taking your eye on a dizzying ride, so lively it  seems they were whipped onto the canvas at lightning speed. What doesn’t show at first is the precise composition, the careful color choices, and the long years of study and sketching behind each image.

Similarly, musical theatre uses energy and spectacle to carry us on a whirlwind ride. We don’t see the countless months of writing and rewriting, rehearsing and workshopping, under its dancing surface.

Starry: A New Musical is in town, and it’s about van Gogh. The show, by Kelly D’Angelo and Matt Dahan, just bowed at the first SHE L. A. Arts Theatre Festival, and it now moves to the  Rockwell on Vermont for two more performances.

Let’s be clear:  Starry is not a finished musical, swinging inevitably from each moment to the next, all its seams tucked and hidden. It’s in the workshop phase. The performers have had solid rehearsal and direction, and now they’re showing the creators (and themselves, and early audiences) what works, what doesn’t, and how things may need to be tightened or even rewoven.

Many things in Starry already work — others can work, and likely will.

The concept is bold. Vincent van Gogh could be a poster boy for introverts — it’s hard to think of anyone less likely to burst into song, or to belt out his emotions backed by a chorus. But we buy it. In large part, that’s because we start with Vincent singing alone, then joined by his brother Theo, who leads him reluctantly into society.

Theo is another thing about this show that works. Vincent and his younger brother,  an art dealer, are (as in real life) as tight as twins. By starting with them, singly and then as a duo, we’re led right into the story’s heart. And Theo, we find, is well worth knowing.

Starry also wisely uses Theo’s wife, early and often. As intimate  with them as if she were their born sibling, Jo gives us a reliable view of the brothers. She also gives their story a larger context: After the two die (young, and in the same year), Jo devotes the rest of her long life to promoting Vincent’s work, making him world famous.

Another major part of Starry is the art world of the time. Several ambitious but unknown painters — Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, Pisarro, Degas — meet regularly in a Paris saloon to drink and argue. Vincent gains a place among them, as they wrestle with everything from how to capture light to how to win wealthy patrons.

But with so many characters and concerns, the Paris scenes do get muddled. The artists are distinguished more by their characteristics than by their characters, and the drunken revels don’t reveal much about their individual goals and points of view. (I wish these scenes felt more like Survivor, and less like Animal House.)

Then there’s Gauguin. He leads the bohemian chorus, sizing up the newcomer, initiating him, and urging him along. Gauguin becomes Vincent’s painting partner and closest friend — but along the way, we lose him. He grows oddly cynical, pulling away from the story and into a pirate-like amorality. We don’t need a Brechtian narrator; we do need the mystery of the man who tried to be Vincent’s friend.

Finally, there’s the music. The songs are pleasant and numerous, but not yet differentiated enough musically. (One patron said afterward, “I feel like I’ve been listening to the same song for two hours.”)

“A New Way to Love” can be a strong love theme — if we’re clearly told (in dialog as well as lyrics) what the new way is. The song also merits a second reprise in Act 2; like the painters’ lively anthem, “Where Are We Going?,” it can gain meaning each time it’s sung. And the art critics’ acerbic “United in Distaste” begs to recur each time they take the stage (perhaps with a “patter song” refrain?).

Vincent and Theo’s “A New Horizon” is not as effective — it’s more a vague metaphor than a compelling statement of their specific hopes. Jo’s “Enlightenment” tells us better who she is. (An Act 2 reprise would let her say how her life goals have shifted.)

One song works perfectly — the show’s title song. All I will say is that it’s an elegantly simple piece of theatre magic, and it’s executed irresistibly.

Among the performers, Derek Carley carries the role of Vincent comfortably, holds the stage with authority, and is a fine singer. He’s well matched by Matthew Sanderson, who carves out a Theo we immediately trust, and whose love for his troubled brother we fully understand. As Jo, Mariah Rose Faith brings a strong lyrical voice and a gently commanding presence to every scene; we relax when she’s onstage, eager to hear where she’s going to take us.

Jeff Blim’s Gauguin always draws our attention, and overflows with infectious energy. To his credit, Blim strains his powerful gifts to make sense of his character’s drift toward cabaret emcee — but it’s a problem only a writer, not an actor, can solve.

In a small role, Lovlee Caroll stands out, bringing focus and intensity to every encounter, making us want to know this Emile Bernard better. Natalie Llerena, on the other hand, underplays the saucy saloon proprietor Agostina, so that Vincent’s only requited love feels as if it never quite happens (this, too, may be a writing more than an acting problem).

The artists bringing Starry into the world have work yet to do. But the skills and dedication they’ve invested in this striking idea are paying off. SHE L.A.’s producers (Nakisa Aschtiani, Natalie Margolin, and Kristy Thomas) are to be congratulated for giving us  a chance to see this work (and several others, all by women) in progress. If you want to watch Starry continue growing, stop by the Rockwell.
Starry: A New Musical, by Kelly D’Angelo and Matt Dahan, directed by Michelle Kallman.
[Premiered by SHE L.A. ARTS Summer Theatre Festival, at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., LA 90046. CLOSED.]

Presented at the Rockwell Table & Stage, 1714 N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.
Sunday, Aug. 12, at 7:00,
Sunday, Aug. 19, at 7:00.

Tickets: <www.rockwell-la.com>